Money to replace the Columbus Avenue Garage has again been added to a state bond bill. The Senate still has to pass it and then it will be up to the administration when, or if at all, to release the funds to move forward.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Legislature has allocated $45 million more toward connecting all corners of the state to high-speed internet. And the House of Representatives has put local capital projects in the queue for funding.
Working until 10 on Wednesday night, the House of Representatives passed two capital bond bills. One includes $45 million to finish what is known as the "last mile" in connecting Western Massachusetts to the internet.
"It will go into the last-mile project. Twelve million of it is going to the small towns that already have a plan but the costs are coming in higher than they expected," state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, said.
Mark said many towns in the region have set up plans to connect but cost estimates borne on the shoulders of the rural towns are too much. The money will help bolster the state's portion to move those projects along.
He said another $5 million is dedicated to the few towns, such as Savoy, that does not have a plan in place. The total pot of money goes to the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to administer the program.
"I think the MBI has done more in the last year than the other MBI did in the last few," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli. "The MBI has done a decent job, despite some of the criticism."
Pignatelli called the funding "critical" and believes that it will be enough to complete the project.
"We wanted the towns to have some ownership of this last mile but it is costing the towns more than they can bear. We're stepping up in a big way," he said.
That bill has been passed by both branches of the Legislature and now needs approval from Gov. Charlie Baker. Mark said he hopes the $45 million is enough, but wants towns the be assured that the state has their back when it comes to getting it done.
Meanwhile, the House also passed a capital bond bill for infrastructure. Mark has co-sponsored an amendment with state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier to get $6 million into the bill to replace the Columbus Avenue Garage.
The top level of the parking garage has been closed off since 2014 because of concerns about its stability. It is eyed as a key area for parking for the downtown and has been limited for years. In 2014, the state put $6 million aside to repair it in a transportation bond bill but that money hadn't been released.
"The Columbus Avenue Parking Garage is a major priority for the further economic development of Pittsfield," said Farley-Bouvier.
"The rebuilding of this garage has been identified as a linchpin by downtown merchants, our arts institutions, and housing developers. Working with Mayor [Linda] Tyer, we will use every tool we have to get this project completed. Securing dollars in a bond bill is an important step in what can be a long process."
Farley-Bouvier said it has been estimated to cost some $11 million to replace the garage. The transportation bond bill is still active, so in a way there is enough money approved by the Legislature to do the entire project. Farley-Bouvier characterized putting it in the newest capital bill as trying to get the state funds through every angle.
"We just have to keep pushing it," Farley-Bouvier said. "The Pittsfield delegation is going after it at every angle we can."
The garage has been a priority for Farley-Bouvier for a few years now and was her only amendment to the bond bill. Before the bill came before her, there was already $10 million set aside to renovate Central Berkshire District Court.
"Just like any state building you have to take care of it," Farley-Bouvier said. "We've been hearing from judges and court administrators that we need to get in the cue."
The bond bill still needs to be authorized by the state Senate. And then it is up to Gov. Charlie Baker whether or not the funds get released. But, the Houses bill put those projects in line for funding.
Pignatelli pushed to get the Lee State Police barracks into the bill.
"The building needs gutters, the downspouts are non-existent... There are a lot of general maintenance things needed," Pignatelli said.
Pignatelli also got $5 million for Lenox to acquire property and build a new senior and low-income family housing complex. Pignatelli said the details of that project are still being worked out, but tackles a need for the town of Lenox to provide affordable housing options for families and seniors.
Mark reauthorized some $250,000 to improve Dalton Town Hall, money that had been in a 2008 bond bill but never released. He also got an expiring bond authorization for a pre-release center for the Berkshire County House of Correction re-upped until 2022.
Mark also worked to get $9 million in the bond bill for a child care facility at Greenfield Community College, $1 million for a public safety complex in Health -- which he said was almost built a few years ago but the funding was pulled -- $1 million for a new fire station in Bernardston, and $200,000 to complete a senior center in Greenfield.
"This is the first step in the process," Mark said.
No projects for North County were included in the bill. The writing of the bill took place after the late state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi's death and was voted on before her replacement, state Rep. John Barrett III, was able to file any amendments.
But, the state Senate takes a crack at the bill next year, when state Sen. Adam Hinds will be representing the Northern Berkshires for amendments.
Mark said the capital bond bill is the first one the House has passed in a few years. The hope for all the representative will be that the bill continues to progress and the administration releases the funds for the specific projects.
"It was a good day. People worked hard, everybody worked hard for their districts," Farley-Bouvier said.
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